Naheed Nenshi: The reluctant brand

Can a modern politician represent both a brand and real ideas?

Ontarians are bracing themselves for a storm of political name-calling over the coming weeks now that a provincial election has been called. Between that, Pauline Marois’ stunning defeat in Quebec over the contentious Quebec Charter of Values, Alison Redford’s resignation in Alberta and the ongoing deluge of Rob Ford headlines, it seems the character of all Canadian public servants is under the microscope right now.

But then there’s Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi, perhaps the most powerful personal brand in the country. This essay from regular contributor Chris Koentges explores whether a modern politician can represent both a brand and real ideas in an age when voters are consumers and politics is marketing.

Want to position a hopeful politician in the age of post-hope politics? This is the Holy Grail right now. You have to be some kind of an amazing fake or an honest to God rube. Or you have to be Naheed Nenshi. You have to embrace the sort of paradoxes that destroy most political brands before they’re ever launched.

In the final, frantic hours of the 2010 campaign that transformed Nenshi from just another irrelevant Calgary egghead into the most powerful political brand in Canada, Nenshi and his campaign director Stephen Carter argued whether they had run an ideas campaign or a branding campaign. In those hours, when voters began uploading the YouTube anthems and delis named sandwiches after him, trying to bask in the magic glow of whatever bottle of lightning their campaign had caught, Nenshi still insisted it was an ideas campaign.

Anyone who has read some Cicero and is also flipping through a magazine called Marketing, won’t balk at the paradox that ideas might also be the brand. Nenshi is a former business professor, a onetime McKinsey consultant. He’s fundamentally wired to put the two together. You’ll have to forgive those political scientists, though, who didn’t realize it was marketing they have been studying all along.

And if you’re into paradoxes, consider that more resources are devoted to political marketing right now than at any point in history, only to drive an ever-deeper customer distrust—not just for each of the specific federal party brands the marketing is designed to support, but for the entire product category itself. Pundits like to sum up this era of post-hope politics by citing this Gandalf Group poll’s findings: “While 72% of Canadians tended to see normal commercial advertising as truthful, only 30% believed they were getting any truth from political ads.”

Let that sink in for a minute.

What other product category does this? While Coke and Pepsi may battle aggressively, their respective CEOs would be strung up in the boardroom if they remotely damaged, let alone destroyed the category of cola in the process.

To be sure nobody would doubt Nenshi was running anything but an ideas campaign in 2010; he even went so far as to title it the Better Ideas Campaign. When people asked what his politics were, he’d say politics in full sentences, and then start explaining his better ideas. And because some of his better ideas had to do with accountability and transparency, I was given access to the campaign’s final waking hours, and later allowed to exist as a fly on the wall in his office, an experience that shaped my perception of the mayor as a reluctant brand.

The final week of a campaign is when all the careful planning unravels. Volunteers go rogue. Money evaporates. There are the agonizing internal “discussions” about how far to compromise the brand. When the phone bank would go down, nobody asked me to step out of the room. When campaign staff would get drawn into flame wars on Twitter, nobody said don’t write that part.

Nenshi is known as the social media mayor, but in the weeks leading up to those frantic hours, he had co-opted Brownie Wise’s 1940s Tupperware shtick, going into the oversized living rooms of Calgary’s far-flung white-bread suburbs to sell his better ideas at what they were calling “coffee parties.” I watch as this shabby Muslim bookworm from N.E. Calgary would zero in on the most cynical guy in the room, the guy he knows is quietly seething with decades of pent-up anger or mistrust. Nenshi does this Jedi thing. No words. No blinking. Like their brains are suddenly locked together. I know you’re not buying what I’m saying. Never confrontational, more like, come on, just ask me anything you want. And all those years of frustration would bubble out in words that didn’t necessarily go together. At which point Nenshi begins to re-arrange the words. He spoon-feeds an even more incisive anti-Nenshi rhetoric back to the guy, better even than his opponents can put it. But it’s the words he doesn’t say that become important. I know the newspaper columnists you read, the talk radio you listen to. They don’t know you. I know you. He and the guy would discuss different contexts. How’d you reach your conclusion? Here’s how I got to mine. You got a better way? We’ll go with yours. And without fail, the guy admits he kind of likes Nenshi’s way, and suddenly starts beaming. Says he has some friends to call before the polls open. This is how politics is supposed to work. And Nenshi is off to another coffee party.

That night, and all through the next evening as votes were counted, the campaign manager Carter insisted that it was a branding campaign. That any successful political campaign from that point in history forward was, by definition, a branding campaign. Carter had already honed Danielle Smith’s brand to transcend humdrum rural victimhood and cookie-cutter right wing intolerance in her provincial Wild Rose party. After branding Nenshi, Carter was hired to rebrand Alison Redford—to beat Smith. He was named Redford’s chief of staff but left, before her brand imploded, to become the National Director of Campaign Strategy for Hill+Knowlton. Carter is now one of the hottest political strategists in the country. Meanwhile, Nenshi’s sentences keep getting longer. So I don’t know, maybe ideas or branding is just a question of semantics.

This paradox has become among the fundamental preoccupations with political journalism today. There’s this “end of decency in politics” lament that gets framed around the thought that we can no longer tell where ideas ends and branding begins. It became the overarching theme for the past year’s big Canadian political books. Michael Ignatieff candidly puts his Liberal brand’s failure under the microscope in Fire and Ashes; Paul Wells hails the face of post-millennial Canadian conservatism in The Longer I’m Prime Minister; and Brad Lavigne examines the rise of the NDP in Building the Orange Wave. But it’s Susan Delacourt who synthesizes each of these three national brands in Shopping for Votes.

To be a political observer right now is not to analyze leadership and government and the decisions made on the public’s behalf, but to figure out the culture of how we consume politics. Delacourt paints a damning context. Voter turnout has been in a steady decline since the Second World War. She charts this apathy against the rise of political communication jobs in Ottawa.

Hence, the only legitimate value proposition left for a political brand that aspires to any kind of consequence right now is: hopeful politician for post-hope end days. (Then just hope to hell you can hold it together long enough, as Obama did, and Justin Trudeau’s trying to, before your base realizes that you’re not. Political brands tend to hit a point of no return, where stakeholders start to play back what they think the ideas should be and politicians just start telling them what they think they want to hear.)

Everything about this moment—statistically, culturally, geographically, technologically, even spiritually—would suggest the opportunity for a smartly packaged post-partisan political product. Yet as polls tell political marketers that Canadians are increasingly put off by the notion of party politics, the response of each of the three major parties is to become more partisan; tightening their collective brands, muzzling the exact product the market claims it wants to buy: dynamic, individual candidates with no strings attached. Stephen Maher summed this idea up in 137 characters, which Stephen Carter retweeted to his followers: “I think a big problem with our democracy is presidential thinking by voters. Floor crossing a useful reminder: you don’t vote for a party.”

To think of this another way, political marketing has cannibalized the product it was supposed to sell. That is to say, marketing has become the product. An end in itself.

Because any media that’s said to matter in Canada is generated from the centre of Toronto, it’s impossible to mention Nenshi out of context from Rob Ford. They both came to power the same week. The lionization of Nenshi is often directly defined by the disappointed represented by Ford. What never really gets said, though, is that despite a Toronto media yearning to cast him as the urban Jekyll to Ford’s Hyde, Nenshi has adamantly refused the bait.

Nenshi went specifically out of his way to treat Ford with grace—sincerely attempting to forge an alliance, which flew in the face of the narrative that Toronto progressives tried to impose on him. The National Post’s Andrew Coyne summed up the riff between Ford Nation and Central Toronto: “It’s about class. It’s about identity. And it is taking our politics to a very dark place.” Nenshi understands this viscerally. If consumers in the GTA suburbs think they’ve been condescended to, try growing up in the backwater provinces beyond; being force fed the Maple Leafs from a control room in downtown Toronto every Saturday night as the smug elites dismiss you as a redneck. Nenshi would not condescend to Ford’s base. In a not even remotely distant parallel universe, Nenshi is a champion for the Ford Nation —just branded differently.

To spend a day in the office of the mayor of Calgary is to feel like you’ve entered an episode of West Wing. They walk and talk at the same time. There’s no situation so tense that it can’t be diffused with a joke. There is a sense of idealism that seems unfathomable in modern politics. There is also a deep belief that patriots exist on both the left and the right; that politics at its best is the art of collaboration, rather than the destruction wrought by bitter compromise. “Let Nenshi be Nenshi,” is one of the oft repeated phrases, a tweak on the “Let Bartlet be Bartlet” device Aaron Sorkin used in those screw it moments when the real ideas and personality of the fictitious president would usurp the brand that tested well in focus groups.

Delacourt writes in detail about the Harper Conservatives’ top strategist Patrick Muttart, who would tell anyone selling it, the brand meant going to Tim Hortons, not Starbucks. “Tim Hortons voters don’t like fancy, foreign synonyms for their morning coffee and they like their politics to be predictable, beige—just like the doughnuts and décor.” In the Harper Conservative brand, “daring” meant announcing a federal budget from a flagship Tim Hortons location. They believed in the ready-made constituency of Tim Hortons votes looking for “plainspoken truths in Timbit-sized, consumable portions.” The Tim Hortons brand is forever looking backwards to a better time. An ordinary time that simply never existed. The Harper Conservative brand meticulously refers to its target market as “ordinary Canadians.”

Nenshi, by contrast, is forever referring to Calgarians as extraordinary. To consume his brand, you must do remarkable things for your community. In the manner of a Walmart greeter, he likes to wear a button with the number 3 on it—to remind his constituents to do three things to make their city better. Shovel your neighbour’s sidewalk. Host a fundraiser for your local community centre. Be a courteous driver. Small gestures are as important as big ones. Nenshi, who is influenced by Newark’s super Mayor turned New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, tirelessly retweets every single noble act Calgarians commit. Helping them find lost pets and sell Girl Guide cookies. Helping them humble brag about themselves.

The Mayor of Calgary doesn’t exactly drip with any conventional notion of charisma. It’s the way customers, voters, taxpayers, citizens—how you label them is central to what your brand represents—respond to Nenshi. My cousin in Calgary told me about picking his boys up from school. They had been talking about the mayor in Social Studies. About transit oriented development or something just as geeky. The discussion turned into a lively conversation about what it meant to be a citizen in a democracy, he and his boys in the minivan, past where Harper has a house in the in the far suburbs of N.W. Calgary, hockey practice later that night, and suddenly everyone in the car is chanting Nenshi. Louder and louder. Why are we doing this? Giggling hysterically. Nenshi! Nenshi! Nenshi! Months later, my cousin, a politics-averse contractor, couldn’t explain what it was that exactly happened. But he had been moved by that afternoon in the minivan.

When the National Post, which has a more nuanced understanding of The West than the Globe and Mail, named its “person of the year,” they didn’t pick Nenshi—the mayor that the Maclean’s headline gushed could “walk on water”—but the people of Calgary, who had rallied together to rebuild what had been destroyed in last summer’s floods. There’s a telling photo of Harper, Redford, and Nenshi standing over a map of the flooded area. Harper, who’s found time to dress up in some kind of military jacket, is the portrait of calm and steady. Not one hair is out of place. There’s a rabidness to Nenshi, though. Like he’s got a raincoat from some thrift shop, which he’s probably been sleeping in. His hair’s a mess. He can’t quite keep his glasses all the way up his nose. He looks neither calm nor steady, but like a dude who’s seen the wrath of God leveled on his city and he’s going to do everything short of sticking a gigantic straw into the Bow River and suck every last drop of muddy water out himself. He looks like one of us. Did Calgarians move hell and earth in the hours and weeks that followed because that was what this mayor demanded? Or was this what the brand demanded of Nenshi? In a singularly unorthodox political accommodation, we can truly say both.

Is it a cheap shot to use crises such as the floods to suggest that Harper has been branded for customers, while Nenshi is branded for citizens? Harper’s heart undoubtedly broke the same as everyone else when he saw the damage to his adopted hometown.

Gilbert Reid devised a valuable set of rules for speaking to citizens as consumers: “Do not talk of sacrifice, collective good, facts, problems or debate. Instead, make extravagant promises and blame others when the wishes can’t be fulfilled.” Furthermore: “It is not the politician’s job to change people’s minds or prejudices, but to confirm them or play to them, to seal the deal of support. Speeches aren’t made to educate or inform the audience, but to serve up marketing slogans.”

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To Nenshi and the emerging class of politicians in urban Alberta—you can include Edmonton’s new mayor Don Iveson, who lent Nenshi the “full sentences” phrase—the idea of building a value proposition around a chain of doughnut stores, going so far to pit Tim Hortons against Starbucks customers, is a convoluted way to sell the core product. That product—I won’t blame you if you’ve forgotten—is efficient 21st century government and authentic leadership.

The area between brand and ideas is where authenticity either pools up or evaporates. There’s this sense right now that political brands are elaborately scripted from the start.

But what if politicians don’t know themselves what is authentic and what is the brand? As David Frum, the former George W. Bush speechwriter, wrote in what the right felt was a treasonous essay about the delusions that the Republican party had come to peddle:

“Conscious cynicism is much rarer than you might suppose. Few of us have the self-knowledge and emotional discipline to say one thing while meaning another. If we say something often enough, we come to believe it. We don’t usually delude others until after we have first deluded ourselves.”

Or as George Costanza put it: “Just remember, it’s not a lie if you believe it.”

At the height of the floods, a couple of rafters had been spotted on the Bow. It was somewhere in a stretch when Nenshi had been awake for like 36 hours straight (and the #NapForNenshi hashtag was trending). He’d delivered a series of intense briefings, seeming to synthesize information from a multitude of official and unofficial sources—including his own Twitter followers—right in front of the camera lens. And then someone asked him about the thrill seekers on the river. This is the moment that everyone in Calgary remembers about the flood. You could see it in his eyes. That thing he does where he locks minds, he could do it with everybody now. Citizens do not go thrill seeking during a state of emergency! He regretted that he could not use the state of emergency “to invoke the Darwin Law.” This is the true strength of Nenshi’s brand, the capacity to show his market that the selfishness of entitled punks on the river was no different than a city that served national parties or entitled real estate developers at the expense of citizens trying to do 3 good things.

A politician shapes their brand, but thereafter the brand shapes them. Ideas or brand? With Nenshi, consumers can have both.

Chris Koentges is a Marketing columnist based in Vancouver. His long-form journalism has appeared in The Atlantic, Walrus, Reader’s Digest, and on the CBC documentary program Ideas.

Illustrations by Ryan Inzana

This story originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of Marketing, available now to subscribers and in the iPad Newsstand

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